Albert Anatole Alberti - Part 3
As a regular student not being groomed for a role in the church Albert may have had more freedom than I imagine. He was darkly handsome and may have turned the head of some girl in a nearby village or town and talked her into a confessional booth.. In America many acts of passion were routinely interrupted by the town constable shining his light into the back seat of a Chevy. On his regular beat in Lover’s Lane he would not be shocked- only the two illuminated lovers would be traumatized. All three parties must have been shocked when the Priest opened the door of the confessional. I’ve googled pictures of confessional booths and some are quite accommodating but I didn’t see anything as comfortable as a cushioned spring loaded Chevy seat. Albert possibly fell victim to the Italian machismo obsession and envisioned himself a young Valentino. Later in life an affair with his secretary threatens his pension and empties much of his substantial savings.
When giving information for a news article near his retirement Albert states he left the monastery at the age of 17, not 14 as he told my mother. He did not stow away on a ship headed to America, at least not as a teenager. This was yet another tall tale he told my mother. He actually travels only a short distance, whatever the distance might have been from the probable Certosan Monastery in Galuzzo, to the building that housed the Mayor of Galuzzo. An internet aerial view of Galuzzo shows it is a short straight shot to the Mayor’s office, and all down hill from the Monastery. After successfully passing an entrance exam Albert takes a position as a clerk in the Mayor’s office. He remains in this clerical job for two and a half years. Without aspirations of becoming the Mayor of Galuzzo this was a dead end job and Albert was without doubt ambitious. With his position in the Mayor’s Office he kept his eyes and ears open for news of better opportunities. The ebbing economic tide in Italy, which was so hard on uneducated and unskilled workers, provides profitable employment for the multi-lingual Albert. He becomes an instrumental part of one of the greatest mass emigrations in Italian history.
He travels to the port city of Marseille, France and takes employment with a firm of emigration agents. He was twenty years old and received three to five dollars in American equivalency for each passenger he put on board French steamships headed to the Americas. Southern Italians were desperate to leave due to extreme poverty, the problems in acquiring land due to the unification of Italy, and organized crime. Most of Albert’s clients went to South America. Many were illiterate and didn’t know the difference between South America and North America. Too few of the emigration agents were honest enough to tell clients the difference. It was of course a monumental difference and an immoral non-disclosure that affected the lives of many Italians. I hope Albert was forthcoming and honest with his clients. Any sins committed in a confessional booth would pale in comparison to the sin of misleading a poor and uneducated emigrant to thinking he was headed to the America of his dreams only to end up as a virtual slave on a plantation. There was a great need there for unskilled labor on the coffee plantations and in the mines. South America was undergoing a transition similar to that in North America with its emancipation of slaves. Venezuela had actually abolished slavery in 1854, a year before Albert’s birth.
One can only imagine the difficulties that indigent and frequently uneducated southern Italians faced in preparation for traveling to America. Many southern Italians had to sell all their belongings to pay for the fare and needed guidance in disposal of their property. They were allowed only minimal baggage since there was limited space on the ships. With his language skills I assume Albert was instrumental in shepherding them through the paperwork necessary for both selling their property and then traveling to France and boarding a steamship.
Once an emigrant reached the port city of Marseille, they had to pass physical exams, where they were also checked for conjunctivitis and trachoma.
The lengthy steam powered trips were risky ordeals. Space and privacy were both hard to come by. Passengers in steerage slept in narrow packed bunks below deck. During storms the door to the upper deck was latched and left closed. Some sea hardy passengers adjusted to the constant rocking and bouncing of the ship. Many others spent the entire voyage bedridden with nausea.
Food included hard biscuits, wheat flour, oatmeal, rice tea, sugar and molasses. Some steam ship companies supplied travelers with even less variety. Eventually, various countries began regulating minimum requirements for food on board and requiring that each passenger be supplied with three quarts of water a day. Too often, upon landing, a large percentage of emigrants went straight from the ship to the hospitals, where survival rates were grim.
Beginning in 1876, when Albert would have been 21, he began a series of trips to South America in the interests of his French employers. They had a contract for the colonization of Brazil. Two years later he left this position to work for a competing French steamship company with a contract for the colonization of Venezuela.
I don’t know if Albert had the same accommodations as the passengers or if he had better quarters. I’m not sure precisely what his responsibilities as a traveling agent were, but I presume he was shepherding his clients through the paperwork and also acting as the liaison and translator at the destination port. He was probably quite good at his job. French was spoken by the crew, Italian by the passengers, Portuguese by the Brazilians, and Spanish by the Venezuelans. He was fluent in all of these romance languages.
In 1879 on a return trip from Central America, the steamer he was on became disabled. He was 24 and had been back and forth across the Atlantic numerous times. There is no information on how long the ship was disabled but it must have been near disastrous. It prompted a sea change in the direction of young Albert’s life. I seek forgiveness for the “sea change” phrase. Think of the troubles when a modern day luxury liner becomes disabled. A recent Carnival Cruise ship crippled by an engine room fire left 4200 passengers adrift for five days. There were shared horror stories by the passengers recalling unsanitary conditions and food shortages. Think of conditions on a steamship over 100 years ago. The steamship Albert was on was adrift in the Atlantic for two weeks. The perishable food would have definitely gone bad. The drinking water was compromised so dysentery would be in play. Disease killed more emigrants at sea than shipwrecks did during this time of sea travel. Illnesses often spread through the ships in epidemic proportions due to crowded or unsanitary conditions. Typhus, cholera, and dysentery were the biggest threats.
Albert was making a lot of money for a man of his age, but this ill fated trip alarmed him and made him aware of the risks he was taking each time he boarded a ship to South America. I’d like to think conscience played a small part since many of the poor Italians booked by unscrupulous agents were unaware of the ship’s destination. On his return he submitted his resignation to his French employers and set sail for other opportunities.
Albert suffered from stomach issues most of his life. He laid the blame on that final trans-Atlantic voyage. Perhaps dysentery or some other food related bug contracted on that steamship was the origin of his digestive problems. Amoebas, protozoan’s and bacteria can get into drinking water. On one of my mother’s written note sheets she added sentences sideways in the space of the left margin. “Overate 14 biscuits – almost did him in- but lived to be 85 years old”. Her lines and squigglys actually confuse her two grandfathers.. It was her other grandfather, Alson Alexander White, who was the biscuit eater. Alson, overweight, died after falling down the basement stairs in his fifties. Albert had his own “non-biscuit” health issues and always gravitated toward spa towns in America for the medicinal mineral water treatments.. My mother adds “Had to have his stomach removed”. Even today removal of the entire stomach is a difficult and risky procedure. Albert may have had some surgery done on ulcers or removal of a small portion but I doubt it was his entire stomach. His death certificate notes a bad liver as the ultimate cause of death.
To be continued